Uzbek Gov. Attacks on Church Continue
By Felix Corley, Forum 18
In a new challenge to Uzbekistan’s tight restrictions on religious activity, the Council of Churches Baptists have issued a detailed complaint about the country’s religion law and articles of the Criminal and Administrative Codes which restrict religious freedom. “Religious services have been broken up,” they said on 7 December. “Believers have been forcibly taken to police stations, after which cases have been drawn up and handed over to the courts. Fines have been imposed, even when just a few people have come together for prayer in a private flat.”
The Baptist challenge comes as the authorities step up their anti-Protestant propaganda through the state media.
The sharply increased penalties in the Criminal and Administrative Codes introduced in June are a particular focus of the Baptist’s complaint.
“Under the new laws an individual’s possession of two copies of the Bible can serve as a reason to instigate an administrative or criminal case. The second copy will be considered as ‘storing with the aim of distributing’.”
They add that the same restrictions apply to importing religious literature. They complain also of the burning of confiscated religious literature and the punishment of those who have imported it.
Council of Churches Baptists reject registration in all the former Soviet republics where they operate. Under Uzbekistan ‘s draconian religious laws, all unregistered religious activity is – in defiance of the country’s international human rights commitments – illegal and punishable.
The Baptists call for missionary activity to be decriminalised, for Christian literature to be allowed to be freely imported, owned or distributed, and for the requirement that religious communities be registered before they can legally function to be annulled “so that believers can hold services and praise God without obstruction”.
They complain of the latest fine and court order to burn Christian literature in what they call “continuing persecution” from the authorities.
On 25 November, Judge B. Botirov, of the Pap District Criminal Court in Namangan Region, fined 35-year-old Nikolai Zulfikarov 12,420 Soms [62 Norwegian Kroner, 8 Euros, or 10 US Dollars] under Article
241 Administrative Code. This punishes “failing to observe the correct procedure for teaching religious beliefs”. Baptists reported that the court found Zulfikarov’s activity to be illegal, but gave him a low fine given his material situation.
The verdict declared that Zulfikarov’s offence was speaking “without registration in the decreed manner” and without “specialised” religious education “in private” about his faith to four local people on 3 November in his own home in the village of Halkabad . This home service was raided by the police, who confiscated books and tapes.
The verdict noted that “literature, journals of a religious tendency, manuscripts written by others and audio cassettes” were used as proof in the case. A 15 November “expert analysis” of the confiscated materials had found that they were Baptist and “basically represent materials of missionaries (religious propagandists)”, the verdict reported, but added that the analysis had not found anything against the constitutional order of Uzbekistan or calls for the seizure of power. The analysis claimed that the audio tapes – recordings of Baptist meetings in Russia – represented agitation for unregistered Baptist congregations. “Calls like this could lead to social and family differences of opinion,” the verdict noted.
“The confiscated material evidence, as a result of the conclusions of the textual expert assessment – given that all calls and agitation to join illegal societies represent a threat to social security and cause differences of opinion in families and dissatisfaction – are to be destroyed.”
Local Baptists said on 7 December that they are calling for prayer and appeals for the fine to be annulled and for the return of the confiscated literature and audio-tapes.
Several Protestant churches have been closed across Uzbekistan in the past month, while raids, fines and police interrogations continue. Protestants have reported that they fear further reprisals if the exact details of the closures are published. Some Protestant churches have had to give up holding full church services and can meet only quietly in small groups.
Also, on 18 December a Pentecostal church worker in Tashkent was set upon by four men and brutally beaten. “The local imams turned to the mafia and they became involved,” one Protestant said from Tashkent. “The government is stirring up the Muslim population against Christians.”
State-run national television has recently broadcast programs explicitly and directly encouraging religious intolerance and attacking religious freedom, targeting the Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness religious minorities in particular. Protestants have expressed grave concern to Forum 18 about the impact of these programs, suggesting that one of their goals may have been to prepare Uzbek citizens for a further repression of religious freedom.
Despite its numerous anti-religious measures attacking religious freedom, the government has stepped up its efforts to try to convince the world that it respects religious tolerance and religious freedom.